April 24, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge in California has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new state law that would allow regulators to punish doctors who spread false or misleading information about Covid-19 vaccinations and treatments to patients.

The law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, seeks to address the waves of misinformation that have been churning through the course of the pandemic.

While the law’s wording was tightly tweaked, Judge William B. Shubb of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled Wednesday that its definition of misinformation and uncertainty about its enforcement were “unconstitutionally vague.” .

The case, one of two legal challenges to the law and the first of its kind in the United States, seeks to address what the Surgeon General, American Medical Association and others say has caused unnecessary illness and loss of life.

In December, another judge in the Central District of California struck down the injunction in a similar case. The split judgment raised the possibility that the legal fate could ultimately be decided by the San Francisco-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I think the judge saw the law for what it is: trying to silence doctors who disagree” with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other regulatory agencies, said Jenin Younes, an attorney with the New Civil Liberties Union in Washington, who represents the five doctors who filed the lawsuit.

Judge Shubb, appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, wrote in his ruling that he did not consider the question of whether the law violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Instead, he found that the statute violated plaintiffs’ due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

The law expanded the powers of the California Medical Board, which licenses doctors, to designate dissemination of false or misleading medical information to patients as “unprofessional conduct.” This could result in the suspension or revocation of a physician’s license to practice in the state.

Judge Shubb ruled that the definition of misinformation — “false information that contradicts contemporary scientific consensus and violates the standard of care” — could have a chilling effect on physician-patient interactions. He granted a preliminary injunction preventing the law from being implemented pending a full hearing on the complaint.

One of the plaintiffs, psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty, who has challenged many government policies that have emerged during the pandemic, said in an interview Thursday that the law is too restrictive, especially given people’s concerns about how best to deal with the pandemic. The understanding of disease continues to evolve.

“Today’s citation-uncitation misinformation is tomorrow’s standard of care,” he said.

Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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